I’ve seen the movie a thousand times — it’s one of my all-time favorites — but I thought it was finally time to read the novel it was based on. Turns out, THE EXORCIST the novel is almost identical to THE EXORCIST the movie, which I suppose should come as no surprise considering William Peter Blatty wrote both of them. (It should be noted that Blatty got his start in screenwriting, not novel writing. He even wrote the screenplay for the excellent Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau film “A Shot in the Dark”!) The novel delves a little deeper into discussions of witchcraft and the lives of the people around Chris MacNeil, such as Willie and Karl, her housekeepers, and Sharon, MacNeil’s assistant and Regan’s babysitter, but overall it’s nearly identical.
But while the story and the characters of THE EXORCIST remain indelible classics, the novel has some problems that kept me from fully enjoying it. One of the biggest issues for me is that Blatty keeps Regan mostly off the page for the first half of the novel, even after the possession begins. She’s talked about a lot more than we actually get to see her. It has a distancing effect that dilutes the horror of the story, which is something I’m pretty sure Blatty didn’t intend, and indeed he corrected it later with the screenplay. But the result of keeping Regan away from the reader for so much of the novel is that we get a lot more telling than showing, which is definitely less fun to read. (There’s significantly less of this in the second half, although it’s still there in places, and I have to wonder if all this telling instead of showing is a holdover from Blatty’s screenwriting experience.)
Another problem that kept me from fully enjoying the novel is the prose. It’s lifeless, clunky, and clipped, to the point where I grew confused in a few places about what Blatty is trying to convey. There are way too many one-word sentences, for instance, as if Blatty were rushing, still writing in short hand for a film script instead of penning the more immersive prose of a novel. Interestingly, the writing becomes significantly better in the second half of the novel, and the fact that this improvement accompanies Regan’s reappearance on the page strikes me as no coincidence. As a writer, Blatty is fully engaged in the second half of the novel, as everything comes to a head, and seems quite happy to leave the more shallow and skittish first half far behind.
One last issue I had was with Lieutenant Kinderman. In the film he’s a great character (wonderfully portrayed by Lee J. Cobb), but in the novel comes off as a kvetching Jewish stereotype. Since I myself am a kvetching Jewish stereotype, I found this somewhat grating.
I might be nitpicking ridiculously, but I think this is one of those rare occasions where the best version of the story is the film adaptation, rather than the novel it’s based on. Or at the very least, I came away from reading THE EXORCIST preferring the movie.